Posted on 29 December 2018
The essential nature of Socrates’ philosophy lay in the fact that he did not appear to want to instruct people.
On the contrary he gave the impression of one desiring to learn from those he spoke with. So instead of lecturing like a traditional schoolmaster, he discussed. Obviously he would not have become a famous philosopher had he confined himself purely to listening to others. Socrates said of teaching:
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
He just asked questions, especially to begin a conversation, as if he knew nothing. In the course of the discussion he would generally get his opponents to recognize the weakness of their arguments, and, forced into a corner, they would finally be obliged to realize what was right and what was wrong.
Like the Sophists, Socrates saw himself as a teacher of the people. However, whereas the they used debate and rhetoric to make an argument, Socrates used his reasoning in what he called ‘the pursuit of truth’ to determine right from wrong. This process became known as the Socratic Method.
Socrates said that his method helped people in the same way a midwife helped deliver a baby. The midwife does not herself give birth to the child, but she is there to help during its delivery. Similarly, Socrates saw his task as helping people to ‘give birth’ to the correct insight, since real understanding must come from within – it cannot be imparted by someone else. Socrates advised that:
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
To put it another way, the ability to give birth is a natural characteristic. In the same way, everybody can deliver philosophical truths if they just use their own natural reason within.
Using your inner reason means reaching down inside yourself and using what is there. By playing ignorant, Socrates forced the people he met to use their common sense.
Socrates could feign ignorance or pretend to be dumber than he was, which is known today as Socratic Irony. One of his most famous quotes is:
“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”
This enabled him to continually expose the weaknesses in people’s thinking. He was not averse to doing this in the middle of the city square. If you met Socrates, you thus might end up being made a fool of publicly.
So it is not surprising that, as time went by, people found him increasingly exasperating, especially people who had status in the community. Socrates reportedly said:
“Athens is like a sluggish horse, and I am the gadfly trying to sting it into life.”
However, the ‘sluggish horse’ would soon be the one to sting Socrates.
Image from theonion.com/